Gen Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, was a lieutenant colonel when he led the Marine Expeditionary Unit into Afghanistan in 2004. Already under way since 2001, the US had by that stage also launched its campaign in Iraq.
The American strategy in place during the middle stage of his career now appears firmly over. The US has left Afghanistan after 20 years, a promise of the Biden administration that has unfolded chaotically, squandering two decades of hard-won progress against the Taliban in a matter of weeks.
Now, Gen McKenzie has told The National that his country will be doing “a pretty deep study into what went wrong”, both in terms of why the US-supported Afghan military folded so quickly, as well as the wider failure of Nato’s “whole of government approach”.
A “deep study” was not the desired outcome after 20 years of the so-called War on Terror. But reflection is welcome, and there is still a crucial place for the US in the region, albeit one that has changed.
On Afghanistan, Gen McKenzie said he was committed to holding the Taliban to account on promises made at talks with American officials. He also said his country would continue to try to stop Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Whether the Taliban will tolerate or encourage terrorists within its borders is one question; another is whether it actually has the power to stop foreign groups if they come uninvited. Recent deadly terror attacks in the country indicate that they might be incapable of doing so.
Whether the US is able to stop terrorism in the region is a particularly symbolic objective; after all, it went into Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The threat of terrorism remains strong and will require a continued commitment to address it.
While the Biden administration has expressed its desire to remove combat troops from Iraq as well, Gen McKenzie said that recent lessons from Afghanistan mean that another withdrawal will involve an agreement with Iraq’s government. He also acknowledged that even a small troop presence could be the difference between controlling or enabling groups such as ISIS.
Words to this effect can offer cautious reassurance that Afghanistan was not the beginning of widespread US withdrawal from the region, as many have started to fear in recent years. However, it is still on the Biden administration to take more robust measures to emphasise its commitment to the security and stability of the region.
The past few months have been full of real-world and symbolic signs that the US is beginning a new era in its Middle East policy, ending one defined by the War on Terror. Last month saw the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, and just this week former secretary of state Colin Powell, a central figure in the 2003 Iraq invasion, passed away. So did Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year, the US defence secretary who oversaw the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As times change, the Middle East, which for so long has lived with heavy US involvement, will continue to look to officials such as Gen McKenzie to make sure that the next era of American engagement with the region will be better than the last.